Monday, January 14, 2019

Book Review: Podcasting: New Aural Cultures and Digital Media 2018

Podcasting is a medium that is arguably going through a ‘golden age’ (Berry 2015; Ganesh 2016). The latest Reuters report (2019) has found that companies are planning to invest more in audio and podcasts in 2019. This rise in popularity is partly due to the ubiquity of smartphones making podcasts readily available. My personal interest in podcasting has grown from listening to an increasing number of political podcasts and this led me to read a recently published book Podcasting: New Aural Cultures and Digital Media 2018 edited by Llinares, Fox and Berry (2018).

I have outlined below some of the key themes from the book.

Podcasting as a Medium 


Podcasting is distinct from radio in that the audio is not broadcast but made available from internet servers to search and download via sites such as iTunes and Spotify. Podcasts can be listened to, like music, when doing something else such as walking, commuting, exercising in the gym or cooking. Back in 2006 Richard Berry (2006) argued that podcasting was an ‘empowered’ form of radio listening because it allowed listeners to time-shift and listen when and where they wanted. Podcasts fit with the on-demand nature of modern consumption behaviours (MacDougall 2011) where listeners make deliberate (and often narrow) decisions over what to listen to (McHugh 2016). This fits with platforms such as Netflix ,YouTube and Spotify where consumers choose what to watch and when.

Podcasting as a medium is not really ‘old’ or ‘new’ media. Equally audio content can also be created by both ‘professional’ and ‘amateur’ producers, although bigger commercial producers have far more ability to market and get their content in front of audiences.

The nature of a podcast as a medium brings together engaging audio content with learning, critical thinking, scholarship, and entertainment. Podcasts tend to be long form and there is not the same tendency to reduce things to soundbites. They tend to be reflective rather than news driven, often due to the weekly nature of many podcasts. They are typically focused on specific issues either as an individual shows or a whole podcast series. Podcasting is also a long tail medium which builds niche audiences and fans.

The Intimacy of the Aural Form 


The authors make the point that podcasting taps into something fundamental about oral communication. Podcasts are often listened to privately on headphones which create a deeply sonorous intimacy. Podcasters are literally 'whispering in people’s ears'. This creates a directness and closeness where being a private, silent participant in a conversation can generate a deep sense of connection (Llinares, Fox and Berry, 2018). Many of the best podcasts are constructed in a way that deliberately enhances intimacy, for example structuring them so the listener feels they are sitting in on a private conversation or listening in on a phone call. The NPR Politics Podcast is promoted as a place where NPR's political reporters ‘talk to you like they talk to each other’. This implies the podcast communication is something different from normal broadcast communication. It is this intimate nature of podcasting that helps producers build loyal relationships (Meyerson, 2010, Reed, 2012). These relationships develop because podcast listeners can spend hours with a person’s voice in their head and can come to feel like they know them. ‘It can make for fantastic bonding’ (Platt and Truant, 2013).

Aural communication conveys something deeper than the written form. Stacey Copeland comments that a voice carries with it “traces of age, sex, gender, sexuality, culture and many more facets of collective and individual identity”. In the book Dunham highlights the way ‘speech patterns’ also influence communication. There is something primal and human about listening, and stripping away the visuals of TV can lead to a ‘kind of beautiful experience of really listening’ (Llinares, 2018). This deep listening ‘slows the interpretation of words and ideas’ and ‘encourages quiet interiority’. Brabazon explains that ‘listening is different from hearing. It is intentional, conscious and active’, and listening privately can be a deep affective experience.

The authors argue that the aural form of podcasts allows an exchange of ideas and a form of communication that goes beyond what is possible in purely written form. There is a tension between between subjective and objective knowledge that can be expressed in a conversation or interview. Malcolm Gladwell argues that oral communication emphasises the conditionality of ideas, the ability to discuss, argue, backtrack and amend. He comments ‘the minute that it’s on paper it has a kind of permanence and authority’. Writing requires more coherence than conversation, conversation is more exploratory and discursive. A writer will reflect and edit the final written words which creates a distance between the writer and the reader, which is not always present in a conversation or interview.

Power and the Aural Form 


As with other forms of communication there are issues about who has a voice, who gets to speak and which voices are listened to. Podcasts theoretically allow anyone to create and publish a podcast with very limited resources, however, producing a podcast and being heard are very different things.

Christine Mottram argues the gendering of vocal authority suggests that traditionally lower-pitched male voices are associated with authority. However she also argues podcasting represents a ‘shift in audience and speaker dynamics’ in which ‘finding vocal authority in podcasts is not about achieving the traditional Western aesthetic of the low, deep voice, but about sounding like a “real” person: individually authentic’ (Mottram, 2016). She argues podcasting places value on individual authenticity rather than ‘an omnipotent authority.’

An Intimate Bridging Medium 


Luckasz Swiatek argues that podcasting is an ‘intimate bridging medium’ which creates unique modes of connectivity that cross boundaries between producer and listener. Podcasts are an intimate means of communication which allows two types of boundaries to be crossed. Firstly knowledge boundaries. Podcasts allow the audience to access new knowledge and insights. In the same way that television has introduced and educated people to politics who may have previously known little about politics so podcasts can provide a bridge to new knowledge. The intimate, personal and often-conversational nature of podcasts can help individuals of different educational levels cross disciplinary boundaries and learn about new areas of knowledge. Brabazon (2016) observes that ‘when we listen, we learn.’

Secondly podcasts can bridge boundaries between individuals and groups from different contexts including from diverse locations and socio-cultural backgrounds. Podcasts can bridge the ‘intensely personal and intimate’ nature of listening (Brabazon 2016) with globally dispersed communities. Podcasts can help individuals and groups to develop links with each other and feel less isolated. Podcasts can also be used to communicate with the aim of forming groups to achieve particular common goals. Graham and Hand in their book America, an Owner’s Manual (2017) highlight the potential of podcasts for engaging local community groups and keeping them updated. Similarly LGBTQ communities have used podcasts not only to educate publics but to reach people who may be isolated.

Freedom and Independence 


Podcasts are a way to publish ideas and information to an audience without interference or censorship. Independent and amateur podcasters helped create an ethos of authenticity as it is not mediated by regulatory and mass media regimes. It is free from previous regulations and norms of communication and knowledge production. The relative lack of editorial and scrutiny in production marks the medium as something different, more radical, and more culturally urgent than radio. The absence of gatekeepers also creates the notion of creative freedom and an authentic form of cultural expression. Podcasts rely on mainstream infrastructures such as iTunes, Spotify and other platforms but they ‘retain an alternative, even outsider, sensibility.’ These platforms make it free to upload audio content and there is no embedded hierarchy to distinguish between institutional and independent production. This has, perhaps accidentally, facilitated an environment in which a specific, even unique, creative culture has emerged.

Commercialisation 


Podcasting’s status as an amateur medium began to shift in 2012 at the start of what Bonini (2015) has termed the ‘second age’ of podcasting. The recent expansion of podcast production is a transitional moment in which the medium is moving from specialist, amateur, niche productions into a commercially viable media industry of its own. In 2017 seven out of ten top podcasts were produced by existing, large and well-known organisations. It is increasingly difficult for unknown podcasts to gain large audiences as the big commercial players move into podcasting. Large brands, such as the BBC, NPR, the New York Times and individual celebrity brands have the advantage in being able to promote their own podcasts.

Podcasts remain a long tail medium, with the ability for specialists to create niche podcasts. The commercial potential of such podcasts may be limited but for podcast producers, commercial gain may not be the objective. Independent podcasters may use podcasts as a form of agency, similar to blogging, where they have autonomous control of content. They may wish to locate and build a niche community, share knowledge and expertise, or simply receive positive reinforcement for their mediated self.